Section 2 ︎︎︎ Form

“A building has at least two lives—the one imagined by its maker and the life it lives afterward—and they are never the same.”

—Rem Koolhaas,  The Invention and Reinvention of the City

The forms of place are rooted in the physical; they can often be grounded in the idea of space as much as they define place. Forms exist in many mediums via human intervention as well as natural features. Place through form is not limited in anyway way, it can result from similar geological features, a similar system of roads, graphics and advertisements on a commercial street, a set of buildings that enclose a space, etc. This method of defining place relies on the individual to piece together the visual clues and determine the place for themselves. The most visible and effective of form-based place markers act as boundaries of space and place. Sometimes these features are predetermined to help the individual make these associations; forms defining barriers can include fences, buildings, and other intentional modifications of space. But they can be unintentional as well, for instance a busy street that deters pedestrians from crossing it, or a dark walkway that is uninviting. Then there are also the natural boundaries such as bodies of water or mountains that separate places.
     Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour explore what various types of form do to an environment in their seminal piece of research on architecture and form, Learning from Las Vegas.8 Looking predominantly at architecture and signage, this survey of 1970 post-modern Las Vegas FIGURE 5 revealed some interesting notions about the role of graphics in place. One map created FIGURE 6 shows all the words that a passer-by is subject to seeing. This map gives form to the overload of visual information we are subject to in our everyday life which helps us build ideas of place. Even graphics not directly associated with a location or what we think of as place related, like advertisements, inform our idea of place. What would Times Square look like without any advertisements, and how would that effect what our idea of the place of times square? Implemented graphics sometimes give us an idea of place when we would otherwise have no idea where we are. One particular example of this is state border signs in the United States. Driving from state to state across an arbitrary border would mean nothing without those signs. The everyday person would not know they crossed the Illinois and Iowa border, when both sides are farmland, without a sign to signify they entered a new place. Without these signs it could have been several miles without knowing that you changed states.
    Forms not only help us define or inform our ideas of place, but they also help us to relate to them and navigate them. We use forms to help us create a relationship with space and to navigate a place we may or may not be familiar with. The concept of using forms for orienting oneself and navigating the physical environment is dubbed wayfinding. Rooted in semiotics, wayfinding can be found in two varieties, the dedicated signage, which is implemented graphics for the purpose of helping people navigate, and the natural wayfinding, which exists in a place. While implemented wayfinding is self-explanatory, natural wayfinding is the more interesting concept in semiotics. Natural wayfinding varies and is comprised of visual cues from the environment. Utilization of this type of navigation or orientation relies on the individual’s familiarity with an environment or experiences of similar places. This can range from utilizing designed features on a building façade to determine the main entrance, or utilizing a church steeple as a landmark to navigate towards a destination. Kevin Lynch studied this phenomenon in 1960, looking at how people navigate and move through a city and create mental maps using the form of place.9 Studying Boston, FIGURE 7 Jersey City, and Los Angeles, Lynch divided the urban space into paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks as defining visual cues and forms that help inform spatial relationship and navigation. Some cities don’t rely on the visual cues of buildings, but have an underlying grid to help people navigate. In Manhattan, starting at Greenwich Village, the street system acts as its own natural and implemented wayfinding system. FIGURE 8 Generally, streets run east west, and avenues run north south. The higher the street number the more north you are, 5th Avenue divides the city east and west for street addresses with numbers going up from the center, and increasing by 100 as you move to the next block. This allows someone who understands the street system to roughly know exactly where an address is spatially.
    We also navigate and understand places and spaces by creating maps. Maps exist in an in-between world where it is neither a representation of the space as we experience it, nor is it always depicting the place as we might interpret it. Maps help us relate to a space and a place in ways we will never be able to understand it physically. The use of maps to understand place and space has been predominant in our society for thousands of years, but before modern technology, they were form based interpretations and abstractions of place and space. In city planning maps are a tool to convey complex information in the simplest way, like understanding population distribution and diversity. But maps have so much more potential. They can combine odd pieces of information and tell unexpected stories of place in a way that is not possible by other means. The contemporary atlases, Infinite City, Unfathomable City, and Nonstop Metropolis explore unique maps of San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York respectively. These maps showcase juxtaposing subjects10 to showcase a wider breadth of place. “Sugar Heaven and Sugar Hell” FIGURE 9 in    Unfathomable City shows the positives (ice cream shops, Café du Monde beignets etc.) and the negatives (slave quarters, plantations, etc.) of the relationship New Orleans has had with sugarcane.
    Form also gives place character. Edinburgh Scotland takes pride in its historical heritage and architecture, so much so that they have strict historic preservation guidelines for their buildings.11  The language and form these buildings provide, make Edinburgh the place that it is. Forms can even be mobile elements, like the duck tours of Boston. It’s hard to walk around in the main parts of the city and not see one of these driving by or on the river, providing a sense of place for Boston. This form doesn’t need to exist in a positive or defining light and can be temporal in nature, like trash bags on a street in New York, specific graffiti in a neighborhood, or even dog poop in Paris. Forms both big and small can help achieve a sense of place on any scale. Forms also persist beyond time or act as physical reminders of history. While place memory is a concept explored in meaning of place, there is often a physical side to these memories, dubbed memories in place in this research. Memories in place include the bullet holes on the facades in Paris from the Nazi invasion, the water tower in Chicago which survived the fire, and the ghosts of an advertisement FIGURE 10 long passed on the side of a building. This idea of place memory provides a qualitative aspect, through the memories of individuals and a quantitative aspect, through the physical marks left behind. We also often see an augmented version of memory in place through the erection of plaques and monuments. A great example of augmented memory in place is the freedom trail, a constant reminder of the historical nature of Boston utilizing a minimal brick line in the sidewalk, accompanied by all the other historical sites and plaques along the trail.

8.Venturi, Robert, et al. Learning from Las Vegas. 1972

9. Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. 1960

10. Solnit, Rebecca. Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. 2013

11 Edinburgh Municipal Government. Guidelines For Maintaining Edinburgh Built Heritage

© Michael Rosenberg